Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On Vacation in Italy

There will be a small gap in my posts while I am in Italy for a wedding and vacation. I hope to come back with some interesting recipes. In the meantime here are some images of Tuscany and Liguria where I'll be travelling. I'll be back the week of October 8.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fig Spread

As my friends know, when I host a dinner party it means I'm in the mood for experimentation. Despite my mother's sage advice, when I invite people over, we generally end up eating creations I have dreamed up and tested for the first time. Most of these risks pay off. But once in a while, I make something bad and occassionally I make something awful.

Like the ugly child born to supermodel parents, this week's fig spread is a dreadful melange of otherwise tasty ingredients. It was inspired by a recipe I saw almost a decade ago in my hometown newspaper. It was so awful that my dinner guests made me promise never to make it again.

I don't doubt that the original was tasty, but this version contains the same ingredients in different proportions. This illustrates an important learning experience - some dishes and some ingredients are more forgiving than others. For example, I believe you can never have too much cinnamon, garlic or ginger. You could not say the same thing, however, about baking soda, salt or chili. Similarly, some dishes are very flexible and you can generally add or subtract ingredients - soups and salads are good examples. Others are predicated on a finely tuned balance of flavors and even a minor change can ruin a dish.

Another important lesson for me is that more is not always better. For example, if I had used far fewer olives and tomatoes, they may have been a better complement to the sweetness of the figs. In my recipe, however, the flavors seemed to be equally weighted, which ended up cancelling out the good.

Disasters like this can be embarassing, especially when you are serving a crowd, but I think you can learn a lot from your failures and it sure makes for a good story. In the worse case scenario, you order in pizza...

I wasn't sure if I should provide this disastrous recipe, but I figured some of you might be curious...


2 tablespoons olive oil
3 fresh figs, finely chopped or 1/2 cup fig spread
200 grams feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup olives, finely chopped
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
freshly ground pepper
parsley, for garnish

1. Mix all ingredients and serve as a spread on bread or crackers.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Summer Zucchini Soup

This week has felt like fall in Chicago – tonight it may dip to 40F (4C). Despite the cold snap it is still technically summer, and I plan to make chilled summer dishes until they freeze solid!

Today’s recipe features zucchini, which was first cultivated outside Milan from summer squash ancestors that are native to the Americas. Like the tomato, it is a fruit that is treated as a vegetable in the culinary context. In reality, zucchini are the swollen ovaries of the female blossom.

The name zucchini is the diminutive of zucca, the Italian word for squash. In some parts of Europe it is known by its French moniker – courgette which is diminutive of courge (squash).

Our next door neighbor growing up was a woman named Eleanor. She was a fantastic gardener and had beautiful and well-maintained flower beds as well as a lovely vegetable patch. When she was on holiday, my brother and I would take turns mowing her lawn and watering her plants.

She would often share fresh vegetables with our family including sweet carrots, crisp peas and firm zucchinis, which my mom would make into a vegetable curry. One year Eleanor brought us a 3 pound fruit which had become fibrous and unsuitable for cooking. While we couldn't have used it to make a pot of this humble soup, it would have been ideal for zucchini bread (which I hope to feature this winter).

Serves 8

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 cups broth
3.5 pounds zucchini, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese, room temperature (optional)

1. In a large pot on medium heat sauté the onion in olive oil until soft. Add the garlic and sauté for 5 more minutes.
2. Add the broth and bring to a boil.
3. Add zucchini, oregano and salt and cook covered for 30 minutes.
4. Turn off the heat and allow the soup to cool significantly.
5. Pureé the soup in a blender or food processor. Chill several hours or overnight.
6. Bring soup to room temperature and serve with a dollop of mascarpone.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Miniature Key Lime Pies

Although it was only four days long in the U.S., this work week has been exhausting. Many friends are in school or have children in school. I was pleased to see photos of my friend Kiki’s children starting pre-school and kindergarten, and hear about the ambivalence of my colleagues Erika and Valerie as their children transitioned into new routines.

Although summer is not technically over, it feels like it is. To keep the autumn at bay, I decided to make miniature key lime pies. They turned out fairly well, although they were slightly overcooked. Also the cookie base did not remain firm during baking. If anyone finds an especially suitable cookie brand, please let me know. Despite the softness of these pies, they garnered strong reviews.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I use green food color, especially since naturally ripened key limes are actually yellow. Nevertheless, in this country lime is synonymous with green.

The ubiquitous green limes we know are actually known as Persian limes (the word lime comes from the Persian word limu). Key limes are smaller than Persian limes and are more tart, bitter, acidic and aromatic.

They are native to Southeast Asia and came to the New World via the Middle East, then travelled to Sicily, Andalusia, the Caribbean and Florida. A hurricane in 1926 significantly destroyed the U.S. key lime crop, allowing the Persian variety to gain prominence. Thereafter, the term “Key” was added, since the limes were primarily available in the Florida Keys.

Makes 18 key lime pies

2 tins condensed milk (14 ounces each)
6 egg yolks
1 cup key lime juice, freshly squeezed or from a bottle
zest of one Persian lime
4 drops green food color (optional)
18 cookies

whipped cream, for garnish
Persian lime wedges, for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together condensed milk and egg yolks. Incorporate key lime juice and zest.
3. If using, add one drop of food color at a time, and mix thoroughly before adding the next drop.
4. Place foil liners in a muffin pan and put a cookie in each one. The cookies should be the same diameter as the base of the liners. Select cookies that are dense, thick and crisp. I use gingersnaps.
5. Fill each liner with batter.
6. Bake at 350 F for 8 minutes or until set. Do not overbake or the edges will become chewy.
7. Cool for 30 minutes and refrigerate overnight.
8. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and a lime wedge.